Fetch Robotics Wins $20 Million Slug Of Funding Led By Softbank

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

One of the most prominent robotics companies that hasn’t yet been bought by Google just got a new round of funding.

Fetch Robotics, led by CEO Melonee Wise, one of the leading young figures in robotics, today announced a $20 million Series A round led by SB Group US, a unit of Japan’s Softbank. Also joining in the round, which brings total funding of the company to $23 million, are current investors Shasta Ventures and O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures.

In April, the San Jose-based company announced a pair of robots in April that are intended to help automate warehouses and fulfillment centers. Fetch’s Freight robot works with human pickers in a warehouse as they gather products to be shipped, following them carefully much like a faithful dog. Workers toss product into bins Freight carries, and when they’re full, it goes off to a shipping area and another can be summoned. The one-armed Fetch potentially replaces the human picker, at least for many kinds of objects, and can work with Freight for more autonomous operation of a warehouse. Each can return to a charging base automatically.

The 18-person company plans to use the money across the board, from sales and marketing to manufacturing to software development. “We’re hiring like crazy,” says Wise. …

Read the full story and interview with Wise.

Google Wants To Own Your Mobile Moments

googmoments

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

For a few months now, Google has been pushing a new vision of advertising in the mobile age: Advertisers, it says, must capture the “micro-moments” when peripatetic consumers land on an app, a video, a website or anywhere else.

That’s increasingly important because despite today’s mobile first” mantra among tech companies and publishers alike, the fact remains that people use all kinds of devices throughout the day to find what they’re looking for online–their phone, their tablet, a laptop, a desktop computer, even an Internet-connected TV. What’s more, these people are often open to commercial messages for only short periods of time in just the right context: the age-old right-place, right-time, right-message but faster and more fleeting than ever.

And so Internet publishers and their advertisers need to reach not just faceless audiences but actual people, or at least detailed profiles attached semi-anonymously to real people. This “people-based marketing” is something Facebook has made huge coin on, and even companies such as Google are playing catch-up.

So today, Google is aiming to close some gaps in its powerful but (in the mobile age) rather less dominant advertising system. …

Read the rest of the story and interview with Google display and video ads VP Neal Mohan.

With Android Pay, Google Closes Gap With Apple In Mobile Payments

From my Forbes.com blog:

Apple vaulted ahead of Google in mobile payments last September when it announced Apple Pay, its long-awaited entry into mobile payments. By comparison, the three-year-old Google Wallet looked tired and limited.

Now, Apple’s head start has nearly vanished. Today at its I/O conference in San Francisco for software developers, Google introduced Android Pay, a successor to Google Wallet that, when it launches this summer, will come close to matching Apple Pay for making payments via smartphones easy in stores and inside apps.

They won’t quite be identical. Apple Pay’s security system is somewhat different, and Android phones won’t have fingerprint identification like Apple’s until the new version of Android comes out this summer, and even then only on phones that have fingerprint I.D. capability. But they’ll be close enough that consumers should be comfortable using either one in largely the same way–and at the very same 700,000 store locations that have the right checkout terminals.

That’s a big step forward for Google’s mobile payment ambitions. A competitive mobile wallet is key for the search giant because the ability to pay with a couple taps on a smartphone will grease the e-commerce skids for app developers and marketers alike.

If you’re tuning into the mobile payments business recently, you might wonder if Google is simply copying Apple. Actually, it’s more the other way around. …

Read the entire post.

The Top 10 Tech Trends Through 2020, From Five Top Venture Capitalists

techtrends2015

From my Forbes blog:

Get ready for the Skynet economy, the death of the car, and the re-emergence of women in tech.

Those are three of the top 10 trends coming in technology in the next few years, according to several top venture capitalists. They made their predictions Thursday night at a local Silicon Valley institution, the 17th annual top 10 tech trends dinner held in San Jose by the Churchill Club, which hosts forums with tech’s top executives, financiers, entrepreneurs, and thinkers. The criteria for the trends are that they must not be obvious (a rule frequently broken) and will be big in five years (also often broken).

Offering their prognostications at the event were Bill Gurley of Benchmark Partners (recently described by rival VC Marc Andreessen as “my Newman” after Jerry Seinfeld’s enemy), fast-talking science geek Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, China-focused Jenny Lee of GGV Capital, early-stage investor Rebecca Lynn of Canvas Venture Fund, and former serial entrepreneur Shervin Pishevar of Sherpa Ventures. A few samples of what the VCs expect to see:

The virtual me: Lee thinks advances in hardware and sensors will create an explosion of data that will be aggregated into personal profiles that will know more about you than you do. Gurley says humans don’t want to be tracked that much, especially if the devices keep telling you what to do. Likewise, Jurvetson thinks these data-driven systems will be assistants more than taskmasters. And Pishevar suggests this data will work best if it’s made entertaining or gamified. Lee politely implies they’re all old.

The Skynet economy: Jurvetson sees universal broadband, via very low satellites, bringing untold amounts of talent into the global economy. Every part of the Earth would be equally covered with 16 GB a second Internet access by these now affordable satellites. This will profoundly change the lives of these people. Gurley is the main doubter, partly because he thinks it’s too big to invest in. Lynn waffles too, mostly because these people have bigger fish to fry, like, oh, keeping their babies alive. But Lee says wishing it comes true is part of making it come true.

Rise of the robocars: By 2020 we will no longer debate the inevitability of autonomous cars, Jurvetson predicts. They’re already safer than my parents and I trust them for my kids, he adds. There could be a 10 times reduction of vehicles, parking, etc. as well as a 10X reduction in traffic deaths.

The reemergence of women in tech: Half of computer science students will be women in five years, up from 10% now and a peak of 36% in 1984, argues Lynn. She blames the personal computer, which was targeted at males. Lots of pressure to change the situation. And more positive stories are being told, says Gurley. No one’s stupid enough to vote against this hot-button issue.

Overall winner with the highest percentage of audience votes: Rise of the robocars! So Jurvetson gets to wear the ceremonial wizard’s cape. Really, there’s a ceremonial red and blue wizard’s cape. “Do I have to wear it?” he asked. Yes, he did.

And then everyone drove off alone in their Teslas to buy stuff on their smartphone and pore over their binders full of women.

Read the rest of the 10 predictions.

Verizon’s Risky Bet on AOL’s Ad Business

From my story in MIT Technology Review:

In announcing plans to buy AOL for $4.4 billion, Verizon is betting that it can lead the future of television as it explodes from the living room to computers, smartphones, and tablets. But at least in the near term, it faces plenty of headwinds.

The deal, rumored earlier this year, catapults the largest provider of wireless Internet service into the media and advertising technology businesses, in direct competition with companies such as Google and Facebook. Already in the television business with its FIOS cable TV alternative, Verizon now has the potential to help advertisers reach specific audiences viewing online video and TV–still by far the most lucrative ad medium–on any screen. That’s something no other company has yet managed to do.

Although AOL is still known first for its declining but profitable dial-up Internet access business and second for owning prominent sites such as Huffington Post and TechCrunch, its growth is now driven chiefly by enabling the sale of ads–especially video ads–on other sites. The deal, expected to close this summer, would end AOL’s rocky history as an independent company, which began in the 1980s with its pioneering Internet access service and peaked in 2000 when it acquired Time Warner for $164 billion–later seen as one of the most disastrous mergers in corporate history.

Since then, the company has struggled to regain relevance. Under CEO and former Google executive Tim Armstrong for the past six years, it has attempted to build a media business; more recently, via acquisitions such as the 2013 purchase of video ad exchange Adap.tv, it has been cobbling together technologies to automate the sale of video advertising on other sites.

That ad tech business, whose revenues rose 19 percent in the first quarter, is probably what attracted Verizon more than AOL’s media business, which grew only 8 percent. Chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam said his company has been investing in advertising technologies that can reach consumers on any screen, from smartphones to computers to TVs. In fact, it’s expected to launch a service this summer that would bundle TV and video content into a cable TV alternative. …

Read the rest of the story.

Amazon’s ‘Risky’ Web Services ‘Distraction’ Finally Pays Off

bezosbet

From my Forbes.com blog:

When I wrote what was likely the first major magazine story about Amazon.com’s Web services business way back in November 2006, most people thought it was yet another crazy idea from CEO Jeff Bezos.

Heck, even most of my colleagues at the magazine thought I was crazy to bother writing about it. Understandably, many didn’t understand what I was talking about–selling access to Amazon’s huge cloud computing infrastructure for its own operations to outside companies–let alone believe that Amazon Web Services was sufficiently important to merit a cover story. “I have yet to see how these investments are producing any profit,” one analyst griped about the engineering and capital expenses involved. “They’re probably more of a distraction than anything else.”

Today, Amazon revealed just how big that “distraction” is. In its just-reported first-quarter earnings report, Amazon said AWS revenues have hit $5 billion on an annual basis. In the first quarter, revenues rose 49% from a year ago, to $1.57 billion.

Even more surprising, perhaps, it’s making money: $265 million in operating income, up from the $245 million it earned in the first three months of 2014.

That may not be seen as a positive by some investors. In the odd calculus of Wall Street, the more money AWS is losing, the better. That’s because, as Macquarie Securities analyst Ben Schachter wrote in a recent note to clients, it would indicate that Amazon’s main retailing business is more profitable.

Still, Amazon’s shares rose more than 15% in the next morning’s trading. That’s partly because, well, ultimately any profits are good profits.

And the growth of AWS, which now boasts more than 1 million active customers ranging from General Electric to every startup you’ve ever heard of, means it’s now a significant contributor to Amazon’s market value. Schachter values it at $75 billion, nearly half as much as the rest of Amazon’s business at $145 billion. …

Read the rest of the story.

Did Apple Flub The Timing Of The Apple Watch?

applewatches

From my Forbes blog:

The Apple Watch reviews are already in, and the verdict is pretty consistent: Apple’s long-awaited smartwatch looks great, but it’s slow, the interface is a little confusing, and too many of the apps are half-baked.

The decidedly mixed reviews are unusual for Apple, even for an entirely new product. I know there were people who panned the iPod and the iPhone when they were first released, but they were clearly idiots. This time, I’m not so sure.

In fact, the rather obvious and oft-mentioned negatives suggest that if another company had produced this smartwatch—impossible, since it doesn’t work unless you have an iPhone 5 or 6—the reviews would have been even more negative. Even the technorati seem unimpressed.

The muted enthusiasm—in some cases outright advice not to buy the current version—raises a central question: Did the company launch the Apple Watch, which will be available for pre-order Friday ahead of deliveries starting April 24, too soon? True, almost all the Apple Watch models were sold out within 30 minutes on Friday morning preordering, though as one story rightly puts it, “it is not clear whether this is due to relatively high demand or low production.” There were many reports in recent weeks about limited supplies, either because of manufacturing issues or because Apple was purposely limiting production.

Apple is sometimes criticized for being late to the party on some products, only to prove after it quickly kills most of the competition that its timing was actually perfect. A few people point out that the Apple Watch is also too late because other smartwatches and wearables from Samsung, Motorola, Fitbit and many others are already out. But a number of signs point to the opposite and very un-Apple-like problem: It’s too early.

Read the reasons why in the full post.